CRISIS IN WEST AFRICA Liberia: Worth the cost of American lives?

Images of war-torn Liberia have tugged at the national conscience. Even 500 American troops, supporters argue, will help end the 14-year-old civil war and will start Liberia on the road to peace and prosperity. It seems such a small number, such a small risk: a quick swoop into Monrovia, a brief deployment of a few months and then our soldiers return home having spread goodwill throughout the world.

The United States can and should play a role in fostering peace in western Africa, but this role does not include the use of American soldiers. The use of American troops is only appropriate to protect the lives of American citizens abroad, our economic lifeblood and to attack the proliferation of international terrorism or weapons of mass destruction.

Furthermore, little reason exists to believe that U.S. forces can restore peace to Liberia. President George Bush has correctly demanded that Liberian President Charles Taylor leave office, but the leading rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, provides no better alternative to the Taylor loyalists. Amnesty International reports that LURD “abuses included unlawful killings, torture, including rape and the use of child combatants.”

Additionally, LURD is at best a loose coalition of anti-Taylor forces, fractured along ethnic and ideological lines, and these factions will almost certainly resume hostilities with one another after the peacekeeping mission’s mandate expires.

Other African nations, spearheaded by the Economic Community of West African States, have voiced their resolve to contribute troops to a peacekeeping effort. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has acknowledged that “the immediate leading role in Liberia will be taken up by ECOWAS, and they enjoy the full support of the African Union.” The United States should applaud Africa for its initiative to police its own backyard and encourage it to continue developing its regional security apparatus. The willingness of West Africa to deal with West Africa’s problems further negates the need of US military force.

In Liberia, the United States should:

— pledge logistical support and perhaps military advisers to the ECOWAS mission;

— help subsidize the digging of wells, the restoration of electricity, and the renovation of hospitals and schools;

— assist Liberia’s new government with debt restructuring, foreign aid and a new economic infrastructure.

— send more teachers, doctors and engineers than Marine combat units.

Over 50 armed conflicts are being fought in today’s world, and the United States cannot respond to each conflict with military intervention. We must always remember that military funerals are not just pictures in the newspaper or clips from a war movie. Each flag-draped coffin means that another American will not be able live out the same hopes and dreams of our own sons and daughters, will not see their first grandchild born and will not enjoy a long life surrounded by those they love. As benefactors of the freedom and security that these brave young men and women provide, we have a duty to ensure that we ask of them the supreme sacrifice to this nation only in the most threatening circumstances.

When the loved ones of a killed soldier receive the American flag, they must know that the cause was as precious as the life given in service. While this is a high standard, it is the only appropriate standard for risking the lives of our men and women.

Christopher J. DesBarres is a research assistant at the National Defense Council Foundation, a private, nonprofit think tank in Alexandria, Va., that studies low-intensity conflict, the drug war and energy concerns.